Lean is not easy. It's not easy to understand. It's not easy to implement. And it's especially not easy to sustain. But anyone who has embarked on a so-called lean journey already knows this. Lean, in fact, is hard work and it's a challenge to keep it going.
Let's start with the easy-to-understand part. Because lean is such a powerful concept, everyone involved in the manufacturing business these days seems to claim their product is “lean.” You'll see ads for lean conveyors, lean robots, lean automation, even lean workstations (I'm personally guilty of that last one). So despite my own advertising, I will tell you this: No product can be lean.
Lean is a process. It's a culture. It's a system. And at its core, lean seeks to optimize manufacturing processes and reduce or eliminate waste — everywhere in the value stream. Like Lexus claims in its auto advertisements, lean is a “relentless pursuit of perfection.” So if you buy a workstation and deploy it in a way that is wasteful, your process is not leaner simply because you have the workstation. You might optimize a worker's movements within the workcell, but if he or she is still walking 50 steps to retrieve parts to use at the workstation, you probably haven't tackled the biggest problem.
But just as a product cannot be lean, no budding lean practitioner should shy away from a product or technology because someone in a lean seminar has preached against it. We hear this a lot when it comes to automated conveyors. The theory is that moving parts from place to place over a distance is simply automating the waste. I can understand this argument. But it represents a highly simplified view of conveyors and automation. Why should there be any dogma restricting the use of any specific technology in the effort to eliminate waste?
For example, many processes nowadays require precision that's simply not possible in a manual assembly environment. Or the environment required for assembly is not conducive to human work, such as cleanrooms or potentially explosive environments. Or the products being assembled are too heavy or cumbersome for humans to move them. Or the manufacturing volumes are extremely high and very predictable. Indeed, there are many situations in which it would be more wasteful to use manual workstations, even in a highly optimized assembly system, than it would be to use conveyors for at least part of the process.
Finally, lean should not be viewed as restricted to the factory floor. Anywhere you have a process, you have an opportunity to identify waste in that process and make it leaner. Whether you're involved in design engineering, accounting or marketing, in a lean environment, you have an obligation to find waste and eliminate it. Remember, you're a contributor to workplace culture. So to achieve success, it's critical to understand that lean is not a project you complete or a vague technique that doesn't really apply to you. If you're serious about success with lean, you cannot implement it and move on. You can move on only from one process to a better process. It's not a project. It's never done. It's a “relentless pursuit.” And it really does require your participation.